I lost my father less than a month back. The word lost feels quite right because I keep looking for him. As if he were misplaced, went missing like we feared he would. As if he could turn up, like a sock or a set of keys, if I looked hard enough or long enough.
(Oddly, in an incredible coincidence, my Polish uncle, – I was his Indian daughter and he my Polish father- died the same day too. But I will talk about that at some later time, if I am able).
My father was 80 years old and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years back. It is not at all unusual, his death, – as I have been told by almost everybody, and as I know very well myself. In fact, nothing about his death, or indeed my grief, is unusual. There is no news here, nothing which can be called even remotely tragic. And this family knows tragic – we have had things happen in our lives where even the laws of nature would have stuttered in sympathy. My father’s death was not in that universe of things. He was old, he had Alzheimer’s, was suffering a lot the last couple of months with another illness, had grown weak and waif-like enough for me to have actually picked him up that last night of his life, as his legs gave way and I brought him from the toilet to his bed. Everybody expected us to get right back to normal life after the days we had been assigned by our culture/religion to grieve for him. He was 80 years old, and grieving beyond a fortnight for a man his age was not normal.
He had lived a long, sometimes heartbreaking life. But life which was at times extraordinary in the most positive way. He was an engineer par excellence, but one who married that with an interest in the arts and literature that is rare to find. He had lived a life more decently, with more integrity and spine than anyone else I know. It is easy to not be corrupt if you don’t have the opportunity. But he lived a life of tremendous integrity in the face of tremendous need while getting every chance to quite naturally choose the morally and ethically wrong path and carry nonchalantly on. That needed character and spunk.
And when he came to the end of that life, he died. It doesn’t get more ordinary than that. He was not a person of any interest at all, not to most people.
Except that he was my father. And grief, like love, is peculiarly resistant to reason. He was my father and now I am fatherless. I cannot call him to come repair my clock or cistern, to help my son with his homework, to just let me sit by him so he could ruffle my hair just the way I liked. I know there were times when I have wished him dead, away from suffering, away from lost dignity. I have wanted him rescued from long-term suffering by early mortality. But really, was it not because I felt more and more incapable of dealing with his illness? And after the first numbing days are gone, will I also feel relief that some other sudden illness took him away, so we could carry on with our guiltless lives?
It’s interesting how unsteady a process grief is. Some days, this conveyor belt of a thing which is taking me further and further away from him shudders and stalls. Reverses. I read Jane Didion some years back, where she talks about how much grief feels like fear, the same fluttering in the stomach, the restlessness. She is right. I feel afraid, but am not really afraid – there is nothing to be afraid any more right now. With my father gone, something of my mother seems gone too. They were hardly the perfect couple and I have been witness to many bitter fights between them. But in the last month she has shrunk as a person, and has told me she feels empty inside. I suspect she also feels insecure. She looks like something is broken inside her. And all this while I had thought there was nothing left to be broken in her. Clearly, I was wrong. With him gone, there is no one to reminisce with, to corroborate her memories (or correct them in the imperious way my dad had). As for me, there is no one to check me, and if our recent electricity bills are anything to go by, my errors will spread like weeds.
Reviewing the past is a luxury I cannot afford, but I still indulge in it and always come a cropper. It’s a stupid trap that can catapult you into a depression and then the past is transmuted into fiction and then the fool’s gold of history. I would have liked some indifference – that would have helped. But even when I hated my father – and I did, or thought I did, many times in my teenage and even adulthood – when his intransigence riled me into huffing out of his flat, promising myself never to return, I knew he would never desert me. And he is the only man I have, sorry, had – who could give me that assurance, despite having a loving husband, brother, son. The sound of my laugh, the proportions of my hands, the brown of my eyes, my sense of and fondness for literature and arts all came from him and are aspects of myself I can’t escape. I could learn to be different, I could pretend I have grown and learnt new, more liberating things, but will still always resemble him. In times of great trouble and mental agony, when nothing made sense, he taught me to turn to books. Those books and that music gave me a sense of quietude and peace that the world outside never did. And while I never gave it adequate credit when he was alive, now I am oddly thankful for them.
I was unlike him in many ways too, and I have other loves in my life that are greater than the love I have for my father. That realization helps. And it doesn’t,
I asked my friend who also lost her much loved father too if it gets any better and she told me it changes. I can believe that. In those first few moments when his hands stopped playing with my hair as I lay hugging him that last night, and when I switched the light on to see if he was breathing, his death seemed surreal. I could feel it there, just past my sight, like a river seething by in the dark, but I couldn’t look it straight on. There was no one in the house who could help me, my husband was away, so I grabbed the phone and oddly, rang my brother and asked him to come, as my father ‘was not breathing’. I remember making that phone call and coming back to the bedroom and watching his chest carefully for any signs of movement. But hearts, like rocks, can only take so many blows and his had given out decades back – it was only his tremendous love for his family that made him crank his heart up and helped him carry on. Now, he just was not interested anymore. His heart quit for good, as mine was stunned yet again.
The problem, you see, is that I didn’t think he’d ever die, that his voice would ever be gone from this world. It’s weird, one would think I had enough experience, right? I knew it, but I didn’t, just like I know now that he’s dead—I can talk about it, could calmly sit through as my friend wrote out the death certificate —but I don’t, not really. I had told myself I did not fear his death but the indignity that would come with his death.
But. I’m having trouble with the word “gone.” Gone where? For how long? I have moments when I have to fight the urge to pick up the phone when my husband is rabbiting on about the connections for the washing machine to find out my father’s take – always the sanest one – on the problem. When I scroll through the contact list on my phone I see Baba written on it and I stop, slaking my thirst for his presence somewhat. I rue the fact that he never quite got used to text messages, so I have none to keep. Only missed calls. Those will have to do for now, and after a while, when I will change phones, even that will be gone. I keep wanting to tell him Neel’s exams are going well (yes, despite his death), I keep smelling his pillow, hoping to inoculate myself. I don’t recommend it, it doesn’t work. I had hoped work would help. It didn’t. I had dreamt of losing family members so often – dreams that delivered a potent grief, but now, trapped in the sheath of reality, I dream no dreams.
So it’s a problem. Because I miss him. Because I never believed in any heavenly father protecting me. And angels and harps don’t work for me either. It was always him. My father saw me – and himself – through some really dark times. He was the one who went crazy with worry when our dog died of rabies after snapping at us and we were holidaying with friends, not contactable in those pre-cell- phone times. He was the one who would sit up nights as we studied for our exams, who would become a completely different person when real crises came in our lives. It was my father who, workaholic that he was, thought nothing of standing in endless queues in several colleges over days and weeks for our admissions, who carried us everywhere we needed to go, literally and metaphorically. He was the one who, along with my mother, kept us whole, in the aftermath of our losses. He embarrassed us, angered us, but loved us, unreservedly. He was the one my brother and I always found coming up with the right response. Unexpected from him, at times, but always so right.
From now on, our journey is our own. Despite his recent illness and confusion, he still had enough of himself for us to feel safe. Others might be with us, but the journey is ours alone. Whatever my brother and I do, whatever we feel, becomes the map. Now we will have to plot our coordinates again to see our way clear.
I should feel free now, free to tell his story, to the extent I ever knew it. My legacy is this freedom, but I would have happily delayed this gift a while longer, had I been able. We were a full family once, but it’s just the three of us now – Ma, Dada and I – who will ever understand how sometimes our hearts will feel overfull, vulnerable. Part of me, nursing grief as a tribute I never gave my dad when he was alive, prefers it that way.
He’s dead nearly a month now, – and I have felt acutely how each day was taking me further and further away from him. I will lose him in pieces over a long time, as the scent of him will vanish from the pillow I fought to keep at the crematorium, from the clothes and from his things. I will always carry with me a lack of something vital. I have tried, over the last few weeks, to look for hints of him on his Facebook page, in his diary, his beloved books and poems and records. As though retracing his books and poems and songs would help me reclaim a part of him that is slowly slipping away.
The finality of it sucker punches me. Even when he was sick, at least things kept changing. He was better one day, worse the next. It was a good time to talk, or it wasn’t. Things happened. Now nothing is happening. This is it. The world will go on, is going on – not where it had left off but on the other side of this nothing time.
And I will carry on with my never-ending task of not forgetting my family.